I haven't done acid in 20 years. I've quit smoking cigarettes. I've quit pot. I've moderated my alcohol intake. But there's one drug I just can't drop: coffee.
It's a strong drug. My body knows. And it knows I'm an addict.
What do we know about the long-term effects of daily coffee drinking? I'm not talking about weak diner coffee, I'm talking about triple grande latte doses once or twice a day. Does it lead to infertility? Moodiness? Schizophrenia? Cancer? Does it damage the kidneys or liver? Or is it fairly benign?
Super Coffee Man
Dear Super Coffee Man,
Caffeine is the psychoactive ingredient in coffee, tea, cola and "guarana," as well as in No-Doz and other over-the-counter "stay awake" pills. Caffeine is a mild stimulant: It wakes you up, stimulates your cardiovascular system a little and perhaps helps mobilize your energy resources. It even helps pain relievers suppress pain. And, of course, it's a "diuretic," which explains the common morning bathroom break after the coffee break.
How much is too much? The average cup of coffee has about 100 to 150 milligrams of caffeine in it, and tea and cola drinks have about 50 milligrams per drink. The average American drinks two or three cups of coffee, or its equivalent in sodas or tea, every day, amounting to 200 to 450 milligrams per day -- which usually doesn't cause much trouble. Most people start having problems with their stomach or with wakefulness when they drink more than six to eight cups of coffee a day.
An average cup of espresso has about 90 milligrams of caffeine, so two triple lattes a day put you at the high end of normal. Four and you are probably getting a little twitchy. But the long-term risks are mild.
The short answer to whether caffeine causes infertility, moodiness, schizophrenia or cancer is "no." Although there were some worrisome reports linking coffee drinking to an increased risk of breast cancer, the connection has not panned out. There is no evidence that coffee damages the kidneys or liver. If you're pregnant, have high blood pressure or have problems with stomach acidity, you should watch your caffeine intake.
As for coffee addiction, if you can stop smoking (congratulations!), then you can stop drinking coffee. It's unlikely that you are an addict. Scientists believe that addiction involves both pleasure and avoiding the pain of withdrawal. Withdrawal alone doesn't mean you are an addict. Coffee doesn't give you the rush of cocaine or heroin. Of course, some people keep drinking coffee to avoid that headache, and some drink so much coffee that they experience the high-dose side effects. But most people can keep the habit under control -- they rarely skip work to shoot up caffeine.
P.S.: Don't worry about the caffeine in your favorite chocolate bar. You would have to eat about 10 bars to get as much caffeine as there is in a cup of coffee. And the 3,000 calories of chocolate is far worse for your health than the caffeine.
Read Buzzed every Wednesday in Salon Health. Send your drug questions to Buzzed@Salon.com.